An Interview with Caitlin Starling

    A montage of portraits of Caitlin Starling and the cover art to her books.

    Caitlin Starling is an award-winning writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction. Her novel The LUMINOUS DEAD won the LOHF Best Debut award, and was nominated for both a Locus and a Bram Stoker award. Her other works include YELLOW JESSAMINE (available from Neon Hemlock), THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY (part of WALK AMONG US, a collection of VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE novellas), and THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE (forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press). Caitlin’s nonfiction has appeared in NIGHTMARE and UNCANNY and she also works in narrative design. Also, she has been paid to invent body parts. Find her at caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.

    I interviewed Caitlin Starling via a collaborative Google Document in June and July 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 3 July 2021.


    INTERVIEWER

    Going back to point zero, when you started writing, was there a specific genre you wanted to write in, or a particular kind of story you wanted to tell? And what was your big break?


    STARLING

    So I started writing, technically, when I was eight years old—I remember writing a SAILOR MOON fanfic—but I started writing original fiction at the age of 11 or 12, and then of course got more serious as I got older. But it was always sci-fi, fantasy type stuff. It was never horror. I never thought of horror, and I never came up with a straight contemporary story that was at all interesting to me, and historical fiction was out because that requires a lot of research.

    I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, too. Horror wasn’t on the horizon for me as I was too scared to watch horror movies. I grew up reading Anne Rice and some other horror, but mostly I thought that I was just too scared to do anything like that. But then it turned out that when I wrote, I tended to like to go to dark places and horror ended up being a good fit.

    So from 15 to 18, I did National Novel Writing Month, every year and every single one of those was some kind of fantasy or sci-fi adventure story, usually focusing on two central characters, usually with the psychological focus. Then I took some time off in college because I decided that I was being very silly and that writing would never make me any money. And I just did fan fiction for a while there. And then after college, at some point I was like, —Oh, I wonder if I could actually still write original fiction. And then I wrote THE LUMINOUS DEAD and went, —Okay, now I need to figure out what to do with this, because I think it’s good.


    INTERVIEWER

    With THE LUMINOUS DEAD, how long was the process between writing it and actually getting it onto the shelves?


    STARLING

    I started writing it in 2014 and by started, I mean that I wrote maybe the first three to five chapters, and then I put it away for a year. And then the following year, I used the excuse of National Novel Writing Month to get my butt in the chair and actually finished writing the book. I had it almost entirely outlined, or in some form or other outlined—I had bullet points. And so I finished writing the first draft at the end of 2015, started querying fairly early in 2016, got my agent a little bit over a year later, and then we sold it in about two months, which is extremely fast for an adult science fiction novel.


    INTERVIEWER

    That seems pretty fast. What do you think it was about the manuscript that grabbed people?


    STARLING

    It was a combo of, on a very practical level, my agent, Caitlin McDonald, is with a well-known agency, the Donald Maass Literary Agency. At the time she was fairly new and she didn’t necessarily have all the connections herself, but she had the reputation and instead of doing it scattershot, she was able to focus on people who she really thought would be interested. So I think that probably helped a great deal. And I think it felt new and fresh at the time. It wasn’t space opera, it wasn’t big galactic political stuff, but the pitch was interesting enough that it got bumped up reading lists. We only got one offer on it though. So only Harper Voyager was actually interested in buying it at the time. But they were very quickly and very firmly interested.


    INTERVIEWER

    It was definitely fresh and there certainly wasn’t a huge amount of psychological science fiction horror set in caves.


    STARLING

    Yeah, that’s for sure. You have films like ALIEN where it’s a very easy connection to make; but with books, it’s a little bit trickier. Although there’s been an uptick, after THE LUMINOUS DEAD came out, and there have been novels like David Wellington’s THE LAST ASTRONAUT and SALVAGED by Madeleine Roux. And now there’s SCREAMS FROM THE VOID by Anne Tibbets and a whole bunch of others. Every three to six months I get a blurb request for something similar. So clearly I just happened to be a little bit ahead of what everyone else was thinking. No idea why, because the idea for THE LUMINOUS DEAD literally came to me in a dream—it is that ridiculous cliché—where I had a dream where I was in Gyre’s situation and I was afraid of, but attracted to, the voice on my radio. And that I was in a cave, and I don’t know why I dreamed about a cave because I was not interested in caves at all before that point. And the suit was in the dream too. And I woke up and I jotted it down and then started working on it. It was very weird. Sort of divine inspiration slash random neuron firing.


    INTERVIEWER

    The suit is crucial and right away we see the science fiction aspects of it, and also the body horror—how invasive it is. And something that definitely comes up in your books is that you like messing with people’s bodies.


    STARLING

    Yes, I do. Especially their digestive systems. I don’t know what’s up with that; that keeps happening. I had a really cool conversation with a couple of readers, but it was Elsa Sjunneson mostly, about how the suit works as a really cool piece of adaptive technology—it’s not just like a super powersuit, it has drawbacks and it has benefits to it in a way that feels very real too. I hadn’t had that in mind when I wrote it, but my approach to it was, okay, this suit is going to solve a lot of logistical problems for me, the reason she’s using the suit besides my dream was because I needed a way to have a single person be able to survive in a cave for weeks at a time.

    Because normally if you’re going [extreme] caving, you basically have a huge support crew and a whole lot of gear that gets ported down into the caves for you. And I also had to give a reason why she had to wear it. So that’s how the tunneller got involved. And I had to put in a reason why it wasn’t perfect, and different ways it could go wrong. And then that actually gave me feedback of what other cool things the suit might be able to do. And it spiralled out from there.


    INTERVIEWER

    What sort of research went into the caving aspects of THE LUMINOUS DEAD, and what experiences did you draw on to create that world, and to depict a story set in that environment? Also, do you have any favourite books about caves or about caving?


    STARLING

    I read a few caving memoirs, and lurked on rock climbing and caving forum boards, mostly. (I’m too much of a coward to go into caves myself!) I’d done some rock climbing of my own before I started THE LUMINOUS DEAD, and all of that together gave me enough to get started with.

    I’d also been dealing with some really gnarly anxiety in the year or so leading up to starting the book, which included some very creepy ‘darting shadow’ hallucinations (which, it turns out, are entirely normal with severe anxiety! Who knew!), which is how you get the full psychological horror bit.

    For recommendations—Jill Heinerth’s INTO THE PLANET (a memoir by a cave diver!), BEYOND THE DEEP by Barbara Am Ende, Monte Paulson, and William Stone (this was the first one I read and really shaped the physical landscape of the cave in The Luminous Dead), and BLIND DESCENT by James M Tabor, which is excellent if you want nightmares about cave collapses/other disasters…


    INTERVIEWER

    In your article ‘Hands On’ for UNCANNY, you make this very funny comment about how we don’t necessarily need to know about the tariffs in place at the harbour where the princess falls in love with the mermaid, but how sometimes these kinds of details can serve the story in a very specific way. How much do you enjoy researching the ships and the tariffs, and with a shared world like VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, how hard is it to balance the requirements of writing to those expectations with your own goals as an autonomous writer?


    STARLING

    I think I’m an odd duck here—I enjoy accumulating facts (like butchery, or tariffs, or the history of the salt trade) but generally not while I’m writing, or for a specific thing I’m writing. Doing dedicated research often feels overwhelming, whereas magpie trivia accumulation is fun. So I guess I like writing about things I already have some base knowledge about, and then I refine certain details as I need them.

    For THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY, the VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE story, of course, I had to research the setting to write the book, but I had helpers for that (read: folks from the Paradox writing team who I could email questions to and get specific answers back from). But the butchering knowledge is all mine, and wasn’t something they specifically asked me to use. It just fit the story I wanted to tell/gave me an excuse to unload all that info.


    INTERVIEWER

    The level of detail, the attention to detail, is part of what makes all of your books really interesting. You have a real knack for describing the environment and for describing all that kind of extra detail. But you say you don’t like research, which I thought was interesting. And I’m a bit of a magpie for details, so I completely get what you mean about just picking things up. And I think that for me, the less useful something is likely to be, the more likely I am to remember it. I just accumulate information that I will probably never need to actually use.


    STARLING

    If it feels like homework, I’m probably going to try to avoid doing it. But if it’s something that I’m in for my own sake, then I’m all in. I think when it feels like I’m doing research specifically for a project, I just get really nervous that I’m going to miss something. And then that anxiety means I can’t really sink into it and have fun with it, and so I don’t retain any of it. It’s just not fun that way.


    INTERVIEWER

    How do you keep track of your research? Do you use Scrivener?


    STARLING

    I have a OneNote file where I just dump things that I encounter or idea fragments that I have, or cool images I find on the internet. And then I go in every so often and I try and organize it, which makes me have to look at it all again. And sometimes stuff clicks together. I’ve had this OneNote file since 2015 that’s just slowly grown and grown. And I use it for other stuff too. Like it has my to be read spreadsheet in there. It has my grocery list in there. But it has a very large writing subsection too.


    INTERVIEWER

    CYBERPUNK and VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE, and later WEREWOLF: THE APOCALYPSE, were my first encounters with role-playing, and with collaborative worlds. When did you first encounter VAMPIRE and what other shared worlds, or universes, would you love to write within?


    STARLING

    Sometime in the mid 2000s, when I was a teenager haunting my local comic shop. I picked up some of the rulebooks, the clan novels, etc. I never actually played, just read through all the materials and sometimes talked with a friend about it. For other universes, I’ve played (as a fan) with writing in DISHONORED and DRAGON AGE, though I think my time for those has passed. Maybe something like SUBNAUTICA?


    INTERVIEWER

    I would love to read your take on something like SUBNAUTICA which I think is a great concept. What is it about that game that appeals to you and what games are you currently playing?


    STARLING

    I really enjoy these soothing tasks that build one on top of the other and it’s just a very well-balanced base builder, survival crafting game. And also very, very pretty. But you do feel alone for most of the game, and mostly that’s soothing; occasionally, that’s very stressful. Largely I like it because I find it very relaxing

    I’m also playing DISCO ELYSIUM for the first time, which is fantastic. And I went in intentionally not expecting anything because I know that apparently it’s just a lot of wow, what. Which it has been. And it’s interesting because if you pitched that game on paper to me, I’m not sure I would pick it up because you’re playing, a 50-something disgraced cop who’s a raging alcoholic and drug addict, suicidal, and who has been devastated by his wife leaving him. That’s not usually my milieu, but it works really well in unexpected ways Have you played it?


    INTERVIEWER

    I haven’t. One of my students mentioned it and that’s probably when I first saw it. I’ve heard that there’s something important about the way the narrative generates.


    STARLING

    So the mechanic of the game is basically that various parts of your psyche will chime in addressing you in second person, and this is based on dice rolls that happen. And they tell you that they made them, but not that they’re going to make them. And then during conversations you can choose to do dice rolls and stuff. It’s really interesting. It’s also not reaction speed based at all. It’s all, exploring and clicking on things and talking to people. And it’s a noir cop story, but as you get further into it, it becomes clearer and clearer that the world is very strange. It’s great worldbuilding, the writing is fantastic, the voice acting that they put in is beautiful—it’s great all around. I have no idea if I’m any good at it. I just hit a pivotal moment and I don’t know if that was scripted to happen the way it did or if I just really screwed it up. So I guess I’ll find out.


    INTERVIEWER

    I saw on one of your interviews that you’ve been working on more narrative design and interactive fiction. What, what attracts you to that mode of narrative?


    STARLING

    So a lot of my writing practice as a teenager and a young adult was text role-playing, usually just one-on-one. And between that and video games, I just really enjoy things that give you the sense that you are inside the narrative and that you can go explore the narrative. Also, back when I was 23, I went to a show in New York called SLEEP NO MORE, which is a adaptation, essentially, of MACBETH, but it’s done through interpretive dance—which sounds weird, but stay with me. It is in a five story warehouse that they have turned into a five-story explorable set. And the conceit is that this is a hotel that is notably haunted, and that you are a guest who is there specifically to experience the haunting, and the haunting is the story of MACBETH. So all of the actors are ghosts, essentially playing out the narrative of MACBETH with some additional stuff based on REBECCA and a couple other things.

    Every audience member wears a mask. You’re not allowed to talk, and you are free to explore for three hours. And you can follow the actors around if you want to see any part of the narrative in order. Or you can be like me and you can wander and explore, and you can go through drawers, and read books. And everything on this five-storey set is entirely interactable. There’s a candy store that you can just eat the candy from. There’s also an in world bar that is the only place where you’re allowed to take off your mask and talk. So if you ever need to decompress or take a break, that’s there. But otherwise it’s this incredibly immersive space with amazing sound design and set design. And there can be a whole bunch of people in the building at any given time, but you can be completely alone in some sections of it, because the majority of people will always be following Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. And going to that was the first time when I was like, —I want to be involved in something like this because it feels like you’re stepping into somebody else’s dream and getting to rummage around inside of it.

    And I haven’t done as much as I like as I would like with it, but I was the narrative designer for this interactive art installation called A HUMAN back in 2018, which was essentially a storefront entirely staffed by actors that was ostensibly selling these really cool, very extreme body modifications that we had special effects artists do. And two thirds of them were on really lifelike human sculptures. And one third of them were on live models and it was unclear, which was which. Like, you could tell, but it was sometimes very tricky. In particular there were like three sets of what we called biological high heels, and two of them were sculptures and one of them was a real model’s leg.

    And so my job on that was I got brought in towards the very beginning to help refine the concept. Because this guy had seen things like SLEEP NO MORE and some of the other less theatrical things like Instagram playgrounds. And so he wanted to do something in between, with a story that was challenging, but which was still like tapping into the influencer market—he was a PR guy. So they hired me and I refined their original pitch because it was fascinating. So this is a store that’s essentially selling body parts. They were originally calling it The Body Parts Convenience Store. And I asked, —So is this supposed to be horror? And they’re like, —No, we don’t want it to be scary. So we had to change the name and make it as non-surgical as possible. It has to be very clean. And so together we came up with this idea of making it a fashion brand, a very glitzy lux, spa-like fashion brand.

    And so then I went out and I built the world. I did a whole bunch of research—I did actually do research for this one; it helped that they were paying me specifically to do the research—on concepts of transhumanism and the current frontiers of body modification. And I came up with this world that is 10 years into the future, and this company that sells these things, came up with all the branding for it, and all of their taglines, and then I helped conceptually what these modifications would be. And then the art team took them and developed them further.

    Originally there was going to be a narrative as you moved through the space. There are four rooms in this space and as you go through, it’s not like you’re being told a narrative, but each room has an energy or a feeling to it or things that happened in that room that build one into the other, so that the world becomes clearer to you, the more you go through it. But you can also linger and interact with things. And then somewhere along the line a lot of that got cut to focus more on Instagram-type stuff. And so there was a world to explore, but there wasn’t a narrative in that world.

    But we also the store employees were all actors, and so we gave them lines to riff off of when they talked to audience members. So it wasn’t scripted to the extent where, like they said the same thing every 10 minutes. But they had a world bible that I gave them and all of them were super excited to get to do something like that. So, here’s the background, here are all the things you can talk about. What does your character think about them? And how do they want to talk to audience members about them? It was pretty cool. I wish we’d been able to push it further and I wish I’d gotten to keep that narrative in there, but fingers crossed, we’ll do more in the future.


    INTERVIEWER

    Moving to YELLOW JESSAMINE, was the seed for that novella the idea of this unusual plague, or the world itself, or the characters? Or did it all synthesise in your mind at the same time?


    STARLING

    Character! Evelyn, specifically. She’s been ‘around’ in my head for over a decade, and I’ve never quite known what to do with her. So when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a novella, I took what I knew about her and her world, and developed a plot to show her off.


    INTERVIEWER

    You’ve talked about how Evelyn had been a role-playing character and that you thought that she wasn’t enough of a protagonist, she was too static. And so you stuck her in a trunk. What did you have to learn about her to make her a full-bodied person for YELLOW JESSAMINE?


    STARLING

    What actually did it was that by the time I planned out YELLOW JESSAMINE I had written THE LUMINOUS DEAD and I had done the first draft of THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE. So I was getting comfortable with the idea that I was writing horror. And because Evelyn is static, and I think in a traditional narrative that isn’t horror, she would never go on an adventure—the call for adventure would come and she would ignore it. She would shut the door. And also, I was thinking about the kinds of plots that would utilise her best because she’s not good at being social. She doesn’t trust people. She doesn’t have adventuring skills in the traditional sense. She has a bunch of money and has gotten to a point in her life where she’s very stable.

    One option would be just to write her whole backstory as the main book, because that’s the point where she was changing, but that’d be an extremely depressing story. And it feels more interesting as backstory to me to have this weird, tragic, gnarly, knotty thing. Also, I was always more interested in writing her once she has reached her adulthood, once she is very comfortable with poisoning people all the time to get what she wants. It is important that Evelyn is a powerful character, but when you’re starting from a point where a character is powerful, the way you tell a story or make them interesting is by taking everything away from them.

    So horror ended up being the perfect fit for that, because I could take things away from her specifically in the order that traumatized her the most and made her have those reactions. And so that sort of opened the whole thing. And I was like, oh, okay. Now I know what I can do with her. It’s not going to be pleasant for her. But it’s going to let me explore her and it’s going to let me shine a light on both her strengths and her vulnerabilities. Horror is very good at that.


    INTERVIEWER

    One of the blurbs for YELLOW JESSAMINE describes it as Daphne du Maurier if du Maurier had written fantasy. And Aliya Whiteley’s SKYWARD INN, a wonderful novel, also calls back to du Maurier’s work. Have you read Whiteley’s novel? And in what way is du Maurier an influence on your writing? Also, which du Maurier novels would you recommend to someone today?


    STARLING

    I have to admit to reading neither, although du Maurier is absolutely on my to be read. I’ve read THE BEAUTY by Aliya Whiteley, and gosh that was so good, but after writing YELLOW JESSAMINE.


    INTERVIEWER

    One of the threads running through your writing is the idea of the body, and not just body horror, but also the body in nature, and the way we relate to nature. And I see similar questions in Aliya Whiteley’s work and in THE SEEP by Chana Porter. What does nature mean to you? And as a writer and a human in the Anthropocene, what are your feelings about the relationship between the human, the human world, and the natural world?


    STARLING

    The first immediate thought I had was, —Oh God, the complexity of that question, and my feelings about it. I think a lot of it is that as much as society has trained me to see a difference between humans and everything, it’s fundamentally not true. Which gets very clear when you get sick, right? When everything starts to break down, you’re just meat in the end. There’s nothing distinct on like a piece by piece level between us and, say, sheep to, reference THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY, the VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE book.

    I remember when I was probably a pre-teen, maybe 12, and I finally thought about it and went, —Wait a minute, what part of an animal is meat? Because I knew animals had muscles and bones and organs, but I’d never thought of it before. And I realized that what I had vaguely conceptualized as meat was something in addition to everything else, as opposed to meat is what it is—as in, the animal is made of meat.

    But I was fairly disconnected from nature growing up, I played outside, I went hiking occasionally—very small, easy day trails. Like you don’t have to take a backpack, maybe some water. And that was fine. And I liked animals, but I really only knew about house pets. And then I met my now husband, and he’s from Wyoming. And growing up he was out in the woods a lot, and in the mountains, and he grew up hunting, and I had to adjust very quickly to what I assumed was safe, because I thought a lot of things were much more dangerous than they actually were, as long as you know what you’re doing. So when we first knew each other, I wouldn’t want to go backpack camping overnight for more than one day, or I would get nervous about the idea of going out to his family’s cabin which has no cell service whatsoever, and which at the time also didn’t have running water or electricity. I had to adjust to a lot and get used to it.

    And I’ve always been really curious about the body in general. I grew up watching Discovery Health Channel, which back in the early 2000s showed surgeries, and there was one which stayed with me—because I think I watched it two or three times—of a woman having a 200-pound tumor removed from her. It was a 12-hour marathon surgery of keeping her alive through this huge excision. And stuff like that. A lot of plastic surgery, too. And it was wild that that was just on cable television here when I was growing up. But that always fascinated me.

    And then after meeting my husband I got to this point where I could actually start playing with the natural world. And that’s around the time I also started getting interested in things like making my own bread and learning how to weave cloth. And I was an anthropology major in college. So we made our own mead and all this stuff, and that ended up leading into me taking butchery classes and things like that. And yeah, there’s just, there’s I think the major thing is that there, there was, I started with a very firm line between myself and nature, and it’s gotten much blurrier and more permeable over time. But nature is not safe. It can’t be safe. It’s not designed for humans—even things that are designed for humans, aren’t safe—but it’s not designed. It’s a thing that exists. And so your relative safety level changes based on what you bring to it. And what’s currently going on, which comes back to the whole, —God, this is so complex. But there is so much to poke at and to try and capture the experience of, I guess.


    INTERVIEWER

    And I think the kind of fiction you’re writing is a really good vehicle for that. It’s a very good way of exploring the place where those two things meet.


    STARLING

    Yes, because how people develop skills and systems to order an environment that is inherently not ordered for them to begin with, tells you a lot about people, and also has huge impacts on how they live and how they deal with problems.


    INTERVIEWER

    How do you see this relating to transhumanism and technology and survival in a world which is, as you say, fundamentally unsafe.


    STARLING

    I haven’t thought about it in a while, but transhumanism has a lot of different facets. You have people who basically want to optimize the human body, which has some uncomfortable implications. And there are people who just want to be able to do whatever they want with their body, which I can get behind. And there’s also just a thing of, —Okay, so if we push the boundary on what we consider a human, what does that do? In my opinion, that’s a good thing to do, but it’s going to have knock-on effects, because it’s going to change the current rules and the way we have to conceptualise certain things.

    But the main way I came at for that project was that adaptive technology again. And we can already do things like create prosthetic limbs that not only give feedback to the brain, which is pretty cool, but also don’t look like limbs. You don’t have to make a prosthetic limb that looks like a human leg. So that to me actually relies more on seeing yourself as a living thing in a different way. You start seeing what the component parts are made of as opposed to what your mental idea of what a human is, if that makes sense.


    INTERVIEWER

    That’s fascinating. Changing topic to your new book, as you were writing THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE, were there any tricky problems you had to overcome? And as it was your second novel, did you feel you could push your own boundaries more? And is there any particular moment in THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE that you’re particularly happy about?


    STARLING

    So I wrote THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE immediately after THE LUMINOUS DEAD, before I’d even gotten an agent. Everything else came afterwards. So really, THE LUMINOUS DEAD had just taught me that I could finish a well-structured novel, with a limited cast and setting, but that was about it. I still didn’t know if either would ever sell, so I was really just having fun at the time.

    Revising THE LUMINOUS DEAD after I sold it to Harper Voyager, though, taught me I could do big rewrites, which, it turned out, THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE sorely needed… In earlier drafts, Jane was far more of a long-suffering pushover, simply because I wanted her and Augustine to come out of the book changed but still in love. I had to get very in touch with my anger for some of the subsequent drafts, and then really think about the nature of desire and a longing for control to get it across the finish line.

    As for a particular moment I’m happy with—obviously [REDACTED], and in the same vein, the chapter where Jane [REDACTED]. In terms of less-spoilery stuff, just generally Jane’s experience of the rituals. It took several attempts to get the rituals to be both interesting and entertaining, despite the repetitive nature of them. I think that section still doesn’t work for all readers, because it is, inherently, repetitive (just like some sections of THE LUMINOUS DEAD are repetitive), but I’m really proud of how they turned out, and how weird they are. I could keep listing scenes, but really, I love the whole book beyond reason.

    And to clarify, in THE LUMINOUS DEAD, the repetitive thing was intentional on my end because it does two things: first, it gives us certain ‘familiar’ areas of an otherwise difficult to orient yourself in landscape; and second, it demonstrates very neatly how Gyre and Em have changed each time they come back around to the same place (which, you can argue, is also very relevant to cycles of grief… and trauma.)


    INTERVIEWER

    You mentioned cycles of grief and trauma in THE LUMINOUS DEAD, and your main characters are all to different degrees, dealing with pain and problems. I wrote here the past becomes poison and that kind of idea, and I think it, these are tough things to write about, how hard is it for you to get into the right frame of mind, to write these people in those situations? Does it become tiring to eviscerate the soul, as I put it on, like that?


    STARLING

    No, this is my natural go-to. This is what I like to write about, what I’m comfortable writing about, and what feels interesting. When I try to write stories without this—and to a certain extent the VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE story is lacking that element; the pain comes not from the past, but from some current perhaps poor decisions—my reflex is to go, —Oh God, this isn’t interesting, and clearly that’s not the case. Not all books are about grief and trauma cycles and all this stuff. But for me it feels very surface level without some extent of that going on. I don’t know if that’s because I lost my mom when I was nine—not sure if it’s that—or if it’s just that I’m really interested in things that either calcify someone’s concept of themself, or blow it up.

    So for THE LUMINOUS DEAD, Em is completely frozen where she is, emotionally and psychologically. To a certain extent Gyre also is, but Gyre is stuck in a very volatile stage, whereas Em became very static. Evelyn likewise is static in her concept of herself based on things that happened to her in her past. And so a lot of the conflict of the book comes when she needs to use different skills than what she’s relied on all her life to keep herself more or less sane. But she doesn’t have access to those skills because they were dangerous to her for a long time. Jane Lawrence has a very, very strict concept of what she is, and who she is.


    INTERVIEWER

    I like that idea of a calcified sense of self. That’s very much the case at the beginning of THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE.


    STARLING

    Yes. And so I think that is where I’m at. And it’s more interesting for me when that’s caused by loss rather than complacency. But I like characters having a very specific place that they’re coming from before the book starts, as opposed to starting with a character that is in some ways a blank slate, which I feel like is another common approach, where the main character has a past, but the past doesn’t really matter that much. What matters is the events of the book and the events of the book build out the character. But like I said, Jane is a very specific character before the start of the book. And the book is about how that changes.


    INTERVIEWER

    What was the spark for THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE?


    STARLING

    I had just seen CRIMSON PEAK in theaters, which was very good and very pretty. And I came out of it going, —Okay, I really liked that, but why can’t the heroine ever end up with the terrible, lying husband? —Why can’t they ever reach a point where they actually work together and the husband survives it? Because sometimes you’ll have it where they finally get to work together towards the end, but then the husband dies as part of that. And that is his redemption, essentially. And it frees the main character to go on into the future to hopefully to recover from the events of the book or the movie. And I was like, —Okay, I want them to fall in love, have a challenge, and end up still together at the end, once they know each other accurately And there’s a doctor character in CRIMSON PEAK who is the final love interest of our main character after she uncovers Tom Hiddleston’s incestuous lies. And it doesn’t feel earned at all. It just feels she needed to be paired with somebody at the end.

    So here’s this doctor guy. And I thought, —Doctors are cool and they’re really often very messed up in the head because of what their job requires them to do, and Victoria surgery was gnarly. And that’s how the book started—I was like, I want to do scary Victorian surgical horror, I want these two to end up together, and I had also been listening to LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT, which periodically covers esoteric magic traditions, like the Order of the Golden Dawn and the Thelema and all of that sort of stuff. And I thought, —There is something here, I want to play with this. And in particular, they actually had an episode or two on chaos magic, which at its very simplest is the idea that you can essentially hack the matrix with the power of knowing the world to be other than it is, which is the basis for Jane’s experience with magic in the book. So those were the seeds. And also a very pretty picture of Gwendolyn Christie, who played Brienne of Tarth in GAME OF THRONES, and it was like, —Oh, that’s Jane, that’s what she looks like.


    INTERVIEWER

    Your third acts are always very strong, and in THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE there is a very steady build up to a remarkably intense chapter. Did you always know the novel was heading towards that, or did it emerge or grow as you were telling Jane’s story? And more generally, are you more of an architect or a gardener? My guess would be that you were a gardener with THE LUMINOUS DEAD and an architect with YELLOW JESSAMINE, but I am frequently completely off the mark. And I can’t quite decide when it comes to THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE.


    STARLING

    I did not! Not in the way it currently exists, at any rate. I knew fairly early on that the climactic ‘battle’ would be Jane going under Augustine’s knife as part of a ritual, but it wasn’t until a relatively recent draft (I believe the one we went on submission to publishing houses with, or maybe one immediately preceding it?) that the chapter you’re talking about came into being.

    Re: architect vs gardener, you’re actually spot on—THE LUMINOUS DEAD I developed fairly organically as I went, and YELLOW JESSAMINE was plotted down to the scene level before I ever wrote a word. I’d consider myself generally to be a hybrid between architect and gardener. I tend to start a project knowing the initial, say, three to five chapters, and then as I continue from there, I build an outline as I go to solve problems/make notes of where I intend to go. The outline gets fleshed out as I write, and then more in revisions so that it becomes a planning document for those revisions.

    YELLOW JESSAMINE was a little different, because I needed to make sure it stayed novella-length. So I calculated out the number of words I usually write in a scene, the number of words (max) that I could have (40k), and then broke that into scene ‘slots’. I then filled them in with my notes (out of order, I might add), closing gaps as I went.

    THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE was more like THE LUMINOUS DEAD, in that I wrote out up through the wedding (which, notably, didn’t change much over the many many revisions the book went through), and then I outlined whenever I ran into trouble. Then I rewrote most of the book two or three times, trying to get it to not just work but really sing. At that point, I had formal outlines for every revision, just to keep my brain organized.

    (For works past these, I’ve flip-flopped in between. The last book I drafted was much like THE LUMINOUS DEAD or THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE; the newest thing I’ve pitched was entirely outlined, again on a scene level.)


    INTERVIEWER

    Last thing, are there any books coming out this year or in the near future that you would like to signal boost?


    STARLING

    I am currently reading THE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD by Katherine Addison, which isn’t exactly a sequel to THE GOBLIN EMPEROR, but it’s another book in that world and it’s really good.

    I also highly recommend Premee Mohamed’s AND WHAT CAN WE OFFER YOU TONIGHT?, definitely. And also Hannah Abigail Clarke whose first book THE SCAPEGRACERS came out last year. It’s a young adult novel and it is fantastic. And the sequel THE SCRATCH DAUGHTERS is coming out in September and it promises to be really good. And even if you don’t really read YA—and I’m on the fence, I don’t always enjoy it—this is something entirely unique and special and alive in a way that very few books are to me. Highly recommended.